Bavli Berachot 56b, Two Ways

This week’s d’var torah was a look at a brief passage from the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Berachot, “two ways.” First, a conventional d’var torah…and then a song.

Here’s the d’var torah:

The three-letter root system of Hebrew, and the other semitic languages, makes for some interesting thinking about words. A powerful example: the word lechem, meaning “bread,” is related (somehow) to the word milchamah, meaning “war,” with which it shares a three-letter root. The exact nature of the relationship between the two words is a matter of debate, but one persuasive line of reasoning holds that milchamah, before it came to mean “war” in the abstract, meant “battlefield.” The battlefield was, in ancient times, “the place where the bread is.”

In ancient times…and in not so ancient times. We philosophize about the wars we’re forced to fight, and those we choose to fight, telling ourselves they are about grand ideas, values, alliances, and all the rest, but when you get right down to it, wars are fought because someone’s got the bread, and someone else wants it. The “bread” may be territory, it may be sovereignty, it may be oil, it may be some intangible like freedom, democracy, or a way of life, or it may be plain ole’ bread..but rarely do we fight but out of a perceived need to take something from the Other, or keep him from taking something of ours. The link between lechem and milchamah reminds us of what is obvious. “War: It’s where the bread is.”

Embedded in the very structure of the language, this lesson may also be lifted up from an enigmatic passage in the Babylonian Talmud. In Tractate Berakhot 56, the Rabbis are talking about dreams and their interpretations, and they are considering what dream-images might point toward coming peace. Rabbi Chanan chimes in with these words: shalosh sh’lamot hen – nahar, k’derah, tzipor. “There are three kinds of peace: river, kettle, and bird.”

What did Rabbi Chanan mean? He offers prooftexts, verses in which a river, a kettle, and a bird are connected to the idea of peace. But that can’t be all there is to it, for as his colleague Rabbi Joshua ben Levi is quick to point out, there are also prooftexts in which rivers, kettles and birds are connected to war! No, there must be some deeper level at which a river, a kettle, and a bird represent three different kinds of peace.

A suggestion: rivers and kettles represent the most basic kind of peace, which comes with a certain level of security. The river marks the boundary between one political entity – a tribe, or a nation—and the next. The kettle is a place to prepare food, and as we’ve learned, “war is where the bread is.” If you’ve got a river wide enough, and a kettle deep enough, you need not go to war against anyone else.

You don’t need to make war on them, but they probably need to make war on you. In her book The Curse of Cain: the Violent Legacy of Monotheism, Regina Schwartz of Northwestern University explores this dynamic as it is expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and – provocatively and controversially — how it relates to the “scarcity” of a jealous, sole deity. One God, one favored people, one promised land.

And this week’s Torah portion, with its glorified vision of plenty as a reward for obedience and its horrifying vision of scarcity and war as punishment for disobedience help to make her case. The God of Bechukotai rewards good behavior by letting His chosen people pile up the food until they are throwing away leftovers, and pursue their enemies on foreign soil, routing them with abandon. He punishes them for disobedience with a mirror image, as the people are reduced to cannibalism and given over to the sword and to wild beasts. it is one of the most tragic passages in the Bible.

What can possible rescue us from this tragic vision? How about a bird? Rabbi Chanan’s bird, I believe, represents a change in perspective. It offers us the “bird’s-eye view” if you will, which sees plenty and want not through the narrow lens of self, family, or nation, but as global issues with global solutions. To the bird, the milchamah is no longer the battlefield where competing Others fight over the bread – so that the winner has enough to throw in the trash! – but as a “bread-place” where all are fed.

It is Memorial Day Weekend, a time for honoring the memories of men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice. In an election year when the very notion of patriotism is being miniaturized to the size of a lapel pin, may I suggest that a very patriotic thing to do would be to reflect for a while on how we might turn the peace of the river and the kettle into the peace of the bird. What better way to honor their sacrifice than to transcend “Us” and “Them” and make Isaiah’s dream come true: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; never again shall they prepare for war.”

Amen.

And here’s the song:

When rivers appear in a dream: Peace.
When rivers appear in a dream: Peace.
Rivers are borders, keeping out what we fear.
If they’re over there, then we’re safe over here.
When rivers appear in a dream: Peace.

And when kettles appear in a dream: Peace.
When kettles appear in a dream: Peace.
Kettles mean food, we’ve got plenty in store.
Our bellies are full, we don’t have to make war.
When kettles appear in a dream: Peace.

But rivers and kettles alone won’t suffice.
Peace for only a few is peace with too high a price.
So the gods get invoked and the flags get unfurled,
And we are at war all over the world.

But if you see a bird in your dream: Peace.
If you see a bird in your dream: Peace.
A bird can see further when it is in flight —
It sees Others as Brothers, so how could it fight?
f you see a bird in your dream: Peace.

© 2008, Larry Bach

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